A good relationship with God and people is inherent to the teaching of the Bible. It is at the heart of the 10 commandments and it is reaffirmed by Jesus in Mark 12:30,31: “Love God … love your neighbour…”.
In chapters 5:1-6:2 of Paul’s letter to Timothy he deals with relationships at different levels.
In 5:1-2 Paul tells Timothy how to relate, as a pastor to older men, younger men , older women and younger women in the church.
In 5:3-16 Paul helps Timothy in terms of relating to widows and vulnerable people in the church.
In 5: 17-25 Paul explains how we ought to relate to the elders of the church, particularly in the matter of the church’s material support of them, and in the matter of dealing with accusations against the elders.
In 6:1-2 Paul deals with the matter of the relationship of slaves towards their masters. Further instructions on this matter are found in Ephesians 6:5-9 (Timothy’s congregation) and Colossians 3:22-4:1 where directives are not only given to slaves but also to their masters. The letter to Philemon in particular is about a slave called Onesimus who had stolen from his master Philemon, and who had fled. Onesimus had become a Christian though Paul’s ministry in Rome, and Paul, in this letter appealed to Philemon to take him back as a brother in the Lord.
I am taking the liberty to apply the slave – master relationship to the employer – employee relationship. The biblical principles governing the relationships, be they slave – master or employee- employer are similar. But there is a vital difference. An employee enters into a voluntary agreement with an employer to work for them for a certain mutually agreed upon wage. A slave is a person who is the property of, and wholly subject to, another person. John Stott points out that slaves have three defining characteristics: “Their person is another’s property, so that they may be bought and sold; their will is subject to another’s authority; and their labour is obtained by another’s coercion” . They are “under the yoke of slavery.”
Paul is giving directives to Christian slaves regarding their attitude toward their masters, whether they be non-Christian or Christian masters. It is estimated that at the height of the Roman practise of slavery as much as a third of the Roman Empire were slaves. So we are not surprised that the gospel came to slave and free [Gal. 3: 28], since the gospel of Jesus was never limited to any class of people, but that it was always intended for the whole world. And so it was inevitable that Paul should write directives to Christians who were slaves, remembering the specific challenges associated with the life of a slave.
Slavery is still very much in practise in this modern world.  Modern slavery is a multi-billion-dollar industry with estimates of up to U$35 billion generated annually. The United Nations estimates that roughly 27 to 30 million individuals are currently caught in the slave trade industry. India has the most slaves of any country, at roughly 18.4 million. China is second with 3.4 million slaves, followed by Pakistan (2.1 million), Bangladesh (1.5 million), and Uzbekistan (1.2 million). By percentages of the population living in slavery Uzbekistan tops with 4% of its population living under slavery followed by Cambodia (1.6%), India, (1.4%) and Qatar (1.4%). Mauritania was the last nation in the world to officially abolish slavery, doing so in 2007.
Modern slavery is frequently a by-product of poverty. Countries that lack education, economic freedom, the rule of law, and which have poor societal structures tend to encourage and propagate slavery. In Namibia slavery is forbidden by our constitution. Chapter three, article 9 on “Slavery and Forced Labour“, point # 1 says: “No persons shall be held in slavery or servitude.” Point #2 says, ”No persons shall be required to perform forced labour”.
So, the matter that calls for comment is the fact that Paul says nothing here to condemn slavery. In fact Paul calls on Christians who are “under a yoke as slaves to regard their masters as worthy of all honour.” Were you expecting Paul to be a William Wilberforce, leading a campaign for the liberation of slaves? Why did Jesus, or the apostles, or the early church do nothing to abolish slavery? How do we explain this, since Paul freely acknowledges that slaves are under a yoke?
The simplest answer would be that the institution of slavery was woven into every part of the ancient world. Dismantling slavery spontaneously would have brought about the instant collapse of society, resulting in chaos. So, there is nothing said about that at all, and instead he gives Christian slaves an instruction to submit to their masters.
Here we learn once again that the gospel marches to a different drum. It employs a different strategy. The gospel is not indifferent to the plight of slaves, but it solves the problem in a different way. The gospel always begins by dealing with primary causes. The physical liberation of slaves is not the first priority for the gospel. The first priority of the gospel is the liberation from the slavery of sin. When Jesus was reading from Isaiah 61 in the synagogue, he read , “He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives…” [Lk 4:18]. The context is very clear that He was talking about the slavery of sin, from which every social evil flows , including the slavery of which our text speaks.
Furthermore, we need to be assured that Paul did encourage slaves to seek their freedom if they could attain it. Paul makes it clear that if a Christian who is a slave has an opportunity to become free, he ought to take it [1 Cor. 7:21,22]. In his letter to Philemon, he encourages him to receive Onesimus, his runaway slave “no longer as a bondservant, but more than a bondservant, a beloved brother.” I understand this to mean that Onesimus was going back to work for Philemon, who would care for him physically and treat him as a brother in the Lord.
But mark this! Slavery, along with a host of other forms that demean human beings is an institution that arises from of a fallen world. People were never designed by God for slavery. But there it is! Many people are poor and literally sell themselves into slavery. Others are sold into slavery by their parents because of poverty. Poverty is another result of life in a fallen world. Jesus said, ”the poor you will always have with you” [Mk. 14:7]. And poverty lends itself to exploitation, and it needs to be regulated. And so, in Exodus 20-21, in giving the civil law to Israel, God also gives laws on slavery , not because He designed it so, but to regulate such practises in a fallen world, reminding masters to treat their slaves well. [Ex. 21:1] The law is designed to regulate life in a fallen world. It regulates slavery. It regulates divorce [Deut. 24:1-4]. And yet the Bible condones neither. The civil law simply mitigates and constrains. But it does not condone issues such as slavery. I repeat, people were not originally created to be slaves. We were created for freedom under God!
And so Paul says to Christian slaves (who are under the yoke of slavery) that they should honour their masters. The explanation is given in v.1 : “Let all who are under the yoke as bondservants regard their own masters as worthy of all honour (and here is the reason) so that the name of God and the teaching may not be reviled.” Paul gives an evangelistic reason. He tells the Christian slave that even in his less than ideal position, his behaviour to his master has a bearing on God's reputation. God’s Word is at stake. The truth of the gospel is at stake. This is remarkable. The glory of God in the eyes of a master is at stake in the behaviour of a slave who professes Christ!
So, how does this all apply to us? None of us are slaves, at least not in the way that these people were slaves and yet the principles apply to us, especially as we consider this in the light of our working relationships as employers and employees.
1. Principle #1 : As employees in the service of our employers we are called to ensure that in so doing we honour God and the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. This means that we honour the Name of God by fulfilling the highest standards in our employment. Nowhere is this more true than when we work for a non- Christian boss. Even those that are not nice to us! The apostle Peter makes that point: “Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh” (I Pet.2:18).We are to bear witness to the gospel of Christ in the way that we live. The way that we live either commends the gospel, or it undermines the gospel. Let that be an abiding lesson to all of us! The greatest barriers of our gospel witness in our community and in our working environment are our lives. Our lives will either commend the truth or undermine it.
2. Principle #2 : If we have the privilege of working for a Christian boss, we are not to abuse them on the ground that they are our brothers. Paul is saying to these Christian slaves that they ought to serve there masters even more diligently, and better, precisely because they are fellow believers. Our equality in Christ can be no excuse for poor service.
3. Principle #3 is not found in our text, but as indicated already, we find it in Ephesians 6 and Colossians 3. I am adding it here because I wanted to add a word for masters or employers.
(i) The first point here is that “enslaving” people is wrong (see 1 Timothy 1:10). And even though slavery is a societal fact Paul encouraged a believing slave-owner named Philemon to give Onesimus, his slave, his freedom on the basis that he is a brother in the Lord. Once you have spiritual freedom through the gospel, social freedom should follow very quickly. In business terms that means that we need to treat employees with fairness and respect. It means paying them a fair wage so that they can live in dignity.
(ii) In Colossians 4:1 Paul exhorts the slave-owners in Colossae to treat their slaves justly and fairly, knowing that they too where accountable to their Master in heaven. Both, the Christian employer and employee ultimately have one Master to whom they must give an account. In his letter to the Ephesians Paul tells the slave-owners in the Ephesian church, to stop their threatening, reminding them that God, their common Master shows no partiality when it comes to judging actions (Eph. 6:9)
How are you acting towards those who are over you or under you? Has the gospel taken hold of you in such a manner that it affects those who are over or under you? You cannot possibly act in the way that Paul is describing here unless you have a new heart and a new nature. Unless the Holy Spirit indwells you are not likely to have such inclinations.
Since we came to know Christ, He has often put his finger on wrongs we have done to other people, particularly as we begin to understand the fact that the Lord Christ bore our sins on the cross and grants us total forgiveness. So the great rule for life, in whatever station we may find ourselves in this life is this: The gospel, Jesus, FIRST. Everything follows from that.
William Wilberforce (1755 -1833 ) who led the abolishment of slavery in England in the 18th/ 19th century could do what he did only because of the powerful gospel preaching, the Great Awakening, that happened in the pulpits of Britain at that time! The gospel is the true basis for our freedom, and for that we continually labour here at Eastside!